Spending much of the winter in Sweden this year gave me some interesting insight into the local culture. Since I hadn’t spent any significant time in a cold climate in a number of years, I was particularly curious to see how they managed to survive and thrive in the extreme low temperatures and during the days of scarce sunlight.
With a history of seasonal depression, I went into winter in Sweden with much trepidation. The thought of fleeting daylight hours, bitter cold, and dreary skies had me sprinting to the nearest drug store to stock up on vitamin D supplements and giving myself mental pep talks every day leading up to my arrival.
It didn’t take long, however, to realize that Swedes have their winter coping mechanisms down pat. What I learned was not only surprising in many ways, but also proved incredibly valuable to me as I navigated my first Scandinavian winter. I took cues from locals and applied their tactics to my own daily routine and not only survived but remained downright cheerful throughout!
Here are the main takeaway lessons from my first winter in Sweden:
They know how to dress.
Dressing appropriately for winter may sound like a no-brainer, but let me tell you, dealing with winters in Washington growing up did NOT prepare me for winter in Scandinavia. It wasn’t until this year that I’d ever even considered a full-length jacket, but once I arrived in Stockholm I realized this was practically uniform in the winter and I would have suffered greatly with anything less. Equally important are a thick scarf (not some flimsy fashion scarf like in the photo below) leather gloves (or some other impermeable fabric), thermal underwear to wear under everything, wool sweaters and socks, and a nice fitted hat that covers the ears.
Read More: Packing for Winter in Sweden
They get outside.
The reason dressing well is so important is because all through the winter, even on the coldest of days, you’ll find Swedes outdoors taking advantage of what little daylight they are afforded. And I don’t just mean outside on their way to and from the grocery store, they are outside on walks, skating on frozen lakes, pushing strollers, and otherwise outdoors simply for the sake of it. Once I caught on to this behavior and forced myself outside even when it sounded positively dreadful, I noticed a marked improvement in my mood and productivity. It turned out those few minutes of sunlight each day were all I needed to be reminded that the outside world still existed and that there was, in fact, still plenty to live for.
They exercise regularly.
I alluded to this in the previous point, but Swedes are extremely active in the winter. Not only do Stockholmers walk to get most places within the city, but they make working out a part of their daily routines. At any given time you’ll find joggers making use of the footpaths that line each island’s perimeter, couples taking strolls with or without children in tow, and even the occasional brave cyclist. Even outside of the cities and regardless of the weather, going for daily walks is a perfectly common occurrence, a trend that I wish would catch on in more parts of the world! Exercise is a known mood booster so it makes a lot of sense to prioritize it during the winter months when temperaments may otherwise suffer.
They take advantage of natural light.
Have you ever noticed that Scandinavian design typically involves white everything? I’m talking white walls, white ceilings, white floors, and white decor. Not cream, not off-white, not eggshell, but white. And have you ever noticed that Scandinavian homes often have tons of windows? This is not a coincidence, my friends. The combination of a white interior and a plethora of windows means that every last ray of incoming light gets used to its full potential. In Swedish homes, that light bounces off every single surface, energizing its inhabitants and lending the space a cheery feel even in the dead of winter. It’s one of the things I love the most about the apartments in Stockholm, and something I plan to implement in my own ‘someday’ home.
They decorate with fresh-cut flowers.
Just about every Swedish home I saw had pops of color here and there in the form of freshly cut flowers–typically tulips. Although tulips are associated most closely with Holland, Swedes are the largest buyer of the flower and even celebrate it with a holiday known as Tulpanens dag (Day of the Tulip). They are sold just about everywhere around the city; red tulips are popular around Christmastime, mixed colors are popular just about any time, and even white tulips (yes, more white) are gaining popularity.
They warm up with a fika.
Taking a break for a coffee and a sweet pastry (known in Sweden as ‘fika’) wards off winter blues in several ways. For one, it’s a great excuse to get out of the cold and into a cozy cafe to let your fingers thaw. Secondly, fika is typically enjoyed with friends, and every bit of socialization is important when you’re otherwise locked up in an apartment (especially for those of us with non-traditional jobs that can be done from home–I’d never see another soul if I didn’t make the effort!). The coffee and pastry warm you up in a literal way, and lastly, I’ve never met anyone whose day couldn’t be brightened with a delicious, chewy kanelbulle (cinnamon bun).
I definitely plan to carry these Swedish winter coping mechanisms with me for life. How do you stay happy and healthy through the winter?